U.S. Supreme Court to Rule on Seizing Persian Relics to Compensate Victims of Jerusalem Attack

Previous ruling deemed seizure of Iranian artifacts held in U.S. museums not viable as compensation to victims of '97 Jerusalem bombing

A large Persepolis Fortification tablet with cuneiform text, Chicago, Oct. 16, 2008.
Associated Press

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to decide whether people injured in a 1997 bombing attack in Jerusalem can seek to enforce a $71 million judgment against Iran over its alleged role by seizing Iranian-owned ancient Persian artifacts held by two Chicago museums.

The justices will hear the plaintiffs' appeal of a ruling last year in favor of Iran by the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The decade-old case stems from a suicide bombing of a Jerusalem mall where explosives packed with rusty nails, screws and glass killed five people and injured nearly 200 others.

An earlier decision taken by a federal judge in 2014 deemed the seizing of relics not viable as a solution, a decision that was supported by the U.S. government, the Iranian government and the museums. This may now change.

The 2014 case targeted the Persian antiquities at the Field Museum of Natural History and the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and was closely watched nationwide by other museum officials, who feared a ruling against the Chicago museums could set an alarming precedent that might put their own collections at risk.

"I am very pleased," said Matt Stolper at the time, who oversees Persian collections at the Oriental Institute. "I'm happy these (artifacts) don't need to be surrendered to be turned into money."

In his 23-page decision in 2014, Judge Robert Gettleman said he "recognizes the tragic circumstances" of the case but that the plaintiffs hadn't proven that the Iranian government owned the Field Museum items. And he said the Oriental Institute artifacts were loaned for scholarship, not commercial purposes, and so couldn't be seized.

Among the artifacts in question are thousands of Persian tablets, many of which are inscribed in an ancient alphabet, which are more than 2,000 years old. They have been kept in the Oriental Institute since the 1930s on the long-term loan agreement with Iranian authorities at the time. The Field Museum collection was far smaller.

Stolper also expressed sympathy for the plaintiffs, who included people badly burned in the bombing.

"They are victims of atrocious crimes and they are desperate for a remedy and for some control," he said. "I don't think this was a way to do it."

A lawyer for the plaintiffs, David Strachman, didn't immediately respond to a message left Friday. Museum attorneys said they expect the plaintiffs to appeal the ruling to the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

Both the Field Museum and the University of Chicago fought the bid to seize the artifacts, as did Iran.

In the 1990s, Congress passed a law allowing American victims of terrorism to seek restitution in U.S. courts if a foreign government was seen to be complicit. But actually securing assets after a judgment, as plaintiffs in the Chicago case have discovered, is often difficult.

The Palestinian militant group Hamas took responsibility for the terrorist attack, and a judge in Washington, D.C., later agreed the Iranian government was complicit by providing financial support and training for Hamas, entering the $412 million default judgment.

With limited Iranian assets in the U.S., plaintiffs' lawyers took the novel step of going after the antiquities. The subsequent battle in the courts involved knotty issues of sovereign immunity and terrorism laws, as well as cultural and scholarly exchanges.

The U.S. and Iran haven't had diplomatic relations since 1979 when militant students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held its occupants hostage. More recently, the nations have been embroiled in a dispute over Iran's nuclear program.

As Gettleman noted, U.S. officials also weighed in, opposing the effort to use museum items to pay such judgments.

The Field Museum argued that it legally purchased its pieces in the '40s, including ceramics made by the world's earliest farming communities 5,000 years ago. The plaintiffs argued those sales weren't legal, making Iran the proper owner.

The plaintiffs argued that the around 20,000 items at the University of Chicago could also be viewed as Iranian commercial assets — an argument Judge Gettleman rejected. Over the decades, the university has already returned more than 30,000 to Iran.

"When we finish making records of them, the rest will also go back to Iran," Stolper said.